The Language of Myth, Part 1: Source Decay

The Message of Odysseus by Marc Chagall

“Nations and peoples are largely the stories they feed themselves.  If they tell themselves stories that are lies, they will suffer the future consequences of those lies.  If they tell themselves stories that face their own truths, they will free their histories for future flowerings.” –  Ben Okri, Birds of Heaven

All language ripens from earthly experience, like a plum from a plum-blossom.  Every signifying sound we make is onomatopoetic at its core.  Our languages are imitative of the voices of river and wind, raven and whale.  To tell a story is to undertake an act of consilience with the speakers of the past and the listeners of the future as we weave our place into the fabric of the ongoing world.  Every sentence, every word, when you get right down to it, tells a story.

We contemporary Anglophones live in strange days, when very few of our number can actually speak our language with much precision, accuracy, or beauty.  Our dictionaries pay lip service to the old roots that live within words, but seldom are they taught to the younger generation, and rarer still are they remembered in conversation.  This severance from the linguistic past has been widening for some time now, but it has perhaps reached its apotheosis in the present generation.  (brb got 2 chek 4 txts!)  The line between a language’s slow change over time and its active degeneration may be drawn somewhere on the map of its signal to noise ratio.  I would hazard to assert that this decay of meaningful, essentially onomatopoetic, signal into thin noisiness is by no means a modern phenomenon, though it is abundantly apparent in the modern commercial milieu.  Is there really such a profound difference between a Whopper ™ and a Big Mac ™ that we require wholly separate nouns to denote them?   As synthetic products acquire particular identities with unsettling rapidity, a flattening of distinction between wild species seems increasingly common, such that anyone who can distinguish an ash from a linden tree is generally regarded as some kind of professionally trained expert.  To many contemporary Westerners, a tree is a tree, and that’s as far as it goes.  While this loss of species awareness may be a recent epiphenomenon of the craze for electronic entertainment, which removes one’s attention from one’s home ecosystem, our vocabulary for the living world has been shrinking for far longer.  Most indigenous languages, and almost certainly the languages spoken by the ancestors of Westernized people the world over, contain a great many terms for different growth patterns and colors of practical plants, patterns of movement in animals, and a psychological and spiritual vocabulary of greater nuance and depth than that found in many Western languages.  Where have words like the Lakota tankashila (ancestral spirits that move through things) Maidu hisdom chupi (grey willow switches used to make the inner coil of load-bearing baskets) and Greek daimon (tutelary deity or guiding spirit) gone in our current tongue?  What can you speak of at length, and what must you search for words to describe?

Consider the archaic and quaint sound of many of our words for biogeographic features: wold, heath, fen, hedge, guyot, copse, thicket, hillock, etc.  Think about the sounds of old words, and what they suggest, synaesthetically, about shape or texture.  Look to the awkward and inharmonious portmanteau construction of many neologisms for evidence of forgetfulness of what the syllables within words actually mean, and of the lack of consideration for connotative value over denotative expedience: anti-racism, structural adjustment loan, Darwinian, cell ‘phone, sub-prime mortgage, environmentalist, etc.  Looking only at the last hundred years or so of linguistic history within the Westernized world, it’s easy to see where post-modernists (is that really the best name they could think of for themselves?) got the notion that all meaning is essentially arbitrary.  But, as I said, this sort of nonsense has been building up for generations now.

Quick, how many synonyms for ‘anger’ can you think of?  How about ‘love’?  Describe the process of buying new clothes.  Describe the feeling of buying new clothes.  Would you say ‘testicle’ in front of your grandmother?  What about on a first date?  Words tell stories.  The words we know affect the sort of stories we are capable of telling.  Likewise, our knowledge of the meanings behind and within the words we know affect the sort of stories we tell in every conversation, council, speech, and heart-to-heart.  Even folks with the best of intentions may find their causes subtly undone by insufficient or unsatisfactory vocabulary.  See this earlier discussion of the word ‘sustainability’ for an example of this sort of pitfall.  Ben Okri, who writes frequently about the relationship of language and stories to the character of societies, noted in the Birds of Heaven collection of essays, “To poison a nation, poison its stories.  A demoralized nation tells demoralized stories to itself.  Beware of the story-tellers who are not fully conscious of the importance of their gifts, and who are irresponsible in the application of their art: they could unwittingly help along the destruction of their people.”

Read a newspaper: what types of narratives are featured?  How are they told, and what is valued by the words used in the telling?  What is considered important, by its mention, and what is considered irrelevant, by its omission?  Put cynicism aside for a moment; what do you feel in its absence?

There is a wound at the heart of the Westerner’s soul.  The decay of our languages is a symptom, as is the wrath and confusion that plague so many of our psyches, as is the determination so many of us put to the extermination or confinement of everything wild and untamed, as is the equal determination so many of us put to ignoring these processes.  This wound is very old and very deep, and though it has scabbed over with many generations of scar tissue, it still draws pain when the weather shifts.  It is a wound borne stoically by the tired-eyed policeman who tells you that your last remaining human right is to remain silent.  It is borne by the businessman’s daughter, who every year gives more and more of herself to her toys, and every year receives less and less in return.  This wound is not carried in the flesh, though from time to time the stigmata of blackened eyes and clotted arteries flower across the body, attesting to the sacredness of this pain to our highest of churches.  It flares and sears excruciatingly behind the frightened limbs holding the saw, straining, to the trunk of the cedar tree, and in the unnamed fear behind dilated pupils, behind raging voice, behind the flailing arm that tumbles to a lover’s face.  This wound, like all wounds, is an incompleteness, a cutting off of one essential part from another.  We are wounded in the part that knows stories, in the pattern-making pattern-seeing soul of the self.  Our wound is the severance of self from place, ancestry, and community, of human from animal, of culture and society from all the rest of the living world.

The loss of communicable meaning via the vernacular tongue is both symptom and exacerbating cause of many of our more personal ills in this asphalt-ridden Western nightmare.  We have forgotten many of the old myths that reminded us, frail and forgetful creatures that we are, what a human being is, and how we fit, as individuals, community members, mothers, sons, elders, brave makers of fire, tricky runners, spirit lawyers, tree-pruners, eaters of flesh and fruit, the clever, the foolish, and the wise, into the great pattern of life.  There’s a reason traditional people put so much care and attention into their oral technologies; it’s the same reason many indigenous languages show remarkable constancy over tens of thousands of years, and the same reason many root phonemes in these tongues lie close to the surface.  We are a species inclined to flights of fancy, to short tempers and deep despair.  We have not the patience of the chameleon nor the quickness of the fly, nor the armor of the pangolin.  We make our naked way through this world of wonders and dangers by honeyed tongue, keen eye, and clever hands, tricking, delighting, and negotiating the rest of the world into helping us out.  In many North American creation stories, humans are the last created animal, the runt of the earth’s litter; every thing we have is a gift from someone else.  But as individuals we are inclined towards pride and foolishness, traits embraced to exuberant excess during the adolescent stage of our psychological maturation process.  We need mythic stories to remind us of our responsibilities, to satisfactorily center ourselves in the places we inhabit, to show us how we are never alone in a world crowded with living cousins, and to prepare us for the mysteries of death and the shifting places at the edge of our awareness.  Without stories that make sense of the world on the deepest and most resonant of levels, we succumb easily to confusion, frustration, sorrow, and rage.  Superficial explanations of material phenomena are not enough, as this world of ours is more complex and affects us on more levels than those of dancing atoms and singing paths of energy alone.  The stories we tell about the world we are a part of affect how we perceive it; how we perceive the world affects how we interact with it.  What sort of landscape results when we assume that the world is incapable of meaningful communication?  What sort of society results when we forget the vocabulary of love?  What sort of person results from an imagination without resonant archetypes?  Look around.

For the time being, I’m going to dodge the matter of how this wound in the ancestral soul of the West came to be.  It’s important and I’ve put words and pictures to the matter before, and will again, I’m sure.  For the purposes of this essay and its twin, I’m interested in how we can use oral technology to heal some of the damage we Westerners have, in our madness, inflicted on the world.  Next time I’ll be talking about how myths and mythic aspects of language can be put to the permacultural purpose of growing healthy ecological communities.  Stay tuned!

“I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?”
– T.S. Eliot, What the Thunder Said, The Waste Land

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